Stehekin – the jewel of the North Cascades

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The Lady of the Lake passenger ferry is the most popular means of transportation to Stehekin. Photo by Deborah Stone.
When I told people I was going to Stehekin for a vacation, the common response was, “Where’s that?” Just guessing, some would say, “It’s in Canada, right?” Others would query with furrowed brows, “Is it in Europe somewhere?” Most had no idea that this gem of a destination happens to be right here in Washington State. Its remote location, though, has kept it a well-preserved secret, known only to those adventurous travelers who desire to go off the grid to access some of the most rugged grandeur in the Northwest.

Nestled at the headwaters of Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in America, the Stehekin Valley is the gateway to the North Cascades National Park. It’s connected to the outside world only by foot, boat or plane. The journey to reach this area is part of the experience. For the majority of those who make the visit, the Lady of the Lake passenger ferry is the mode of transportation. You can opt for the slow boat, which takes four hours one way from Chelan, or the express, which cuts an hour and a half off the time.

As you travel up lake, you’ll quickly leave civilization behind and enter an unspoiled frontier, forgotten by time. You’ll go from the dry, desert-type climate of the lower Lake Chelan Valley through fiord-like gorges carved by glaciation and head deep into the Cascade Mountains. Along the way, you’ll be privy to Mother Nature’s artistry in the forms of spectacular, craggy peaks and lush, verdant forests. And it you’re lucky, you’ll spot a glimpse or two of some of the wildlife that call this area home. On a recent trip, my fellow passengers and I managed to spy several black bears, including a mother and her cub, scampering up the mountainside.  

The Stehekin Valley Ranch offers good old-fashioned fun, adventure and relaxation, while providing all the comforts of home. Photos by Deborah Stone.
The name “Stehekin” is based on a local Native American word meaning “the way through.” Years ago, it was one of only a few travel routes through the formidable barrier of the North Cascades and served as a trading passageway for tribes, linking groups between the east of the mountains with those on the Puget Sound coast and beyond. Later, railroad and U.S. Army surveyors came to the region to chart routes through the mountains, followed by prospectors who staked their claims. Then came the homesteaders, who left a heritage of independence and self-sufficiency. Today, Stehekin is a community of about 85 year-round residents, scattered over nine miles of valley, who thrive in the isolation of this wilderness area. They’ve opted to create a life in a place lacking of many of the conveniences that most of us take for granted.

For visitors, Stehekin is the ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of our often hectic daily existences. It’s a unique destination that offers world class scenery and a menu of outdoor activities guaranteed to please all ages and adventure appetites. Though a few people only come for the day, most spend several days to a week enjoying all that the valley has to offer.

Despite Stehekin’s small size, it features a range of accommodations. Among them include the Stehekin Landing Resort, a concession of the National Park Service, several housekeeping cabins sprinkled through the lower valley, and a number of public campgrounds. And then there’s the Stehekin Valley Ranch, where I chose to stay during my visit. I was attracted to this property because of the many options it provides, in accommodations and recreational pursuits, as well as the family-style reputation it has garnered over the years. Located nine miles up-valley from “the landing” (the point of arrival for both boat and float plane passengers and considered the hub of Stehekin), the Ranch offers visitors simple, but comfortable and cozy tent cabins with kerosene lanterns for light and communal bath facilities nearby, as well as cabins with private bathrooms and some that include fully-equipped kitchenettes. Those who stay in either of the first two options receive full board and transportation services in the lower Stehekin Valley.

Famed Rainbow Falls is a must-visit attraction in Stehekin. Photo by Deborah Stone.
To get around, as you won’t have a car while at the Ranch (having left it at the boat dock in Chelan), your options include hopping on one of the bright red Stehekin shuttle buses, which make four runs daily between the Stehekin Landing and High Bridge (about 11 miles one way), renting a bike or hoofing it. There are plenty of places to visit during your stay. Start with the Golden West Visitor Center a short walk up the hill from the boat landing, where you can get maps, books, hiking advice and trail reports from National Park Service staff, as well as hear presentations on the natural and cultural history of the Stehekin Valley. Nearby is The House that Jack Built, where you’ll find a wide array of items handcrafted by folks living in the valley. You’ll also want to stop at the lovely, misting Rainbow Falls, as well as pay a visit to the historic Old Stehekin Schoolhouse, which dates back to 1921. Down the road is the “New” Stehekin School, which opened in 1988. This year, it had seventeen students, spanning kindergarten through eighth grade. And then you’ll want to make a beeline for the famous Stehekin Pastry Company with its fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls and other enticing baked goods.

Back at the Stehekin Ranch, guests usually congregate in the dining facility, a handsome log building, featuring family-style tables and an enormous crackling hearth where giant pots of cowboy coffee simmer. Here, folks gather for delicious home-cooked meals, while sharing their day’s exploits. The kitchen serves up tasty and hearty grub, from grilled salmon to BBQ chicken and ribs, accompanied by all the fixings. And it really shines when it comes to desserts. Pies in every flavor beckon and like a kid in a candy shop, you’ll be overwhelmed by the bounty. With all the activity that I did during the day, I found it easy to justify my nightly slice (or two) of pie – with whipped cream, of course!

You’ll never lack for things to do in Stehekin and the Ranch allows you to choose your own adventures. There’s exciting river rafting on the Stehekin River, kayaking on peaceful Lake Chelan, fly fishing, adrenaline-thumping mountain biking, guided scenic trail rides to picturesque Coon Lake on the Ranch’s steady Norwegian Fjord horses and hiking opportunities galore, from easy nature walks to more challenging climbs. As far as scenery goes, the Agnes Gorge Trail gets my vote for the perfect half-day hike. Its rewards are jaw-dropping views of majestic Agnes Mountain and the deep Agnes Gorge with its thundering 15-foot waterfall.

Hop on one of the Ranch’s steady Norwegian Fjords for a trail ride to picturesque Coon Lake. Photo by Deborah Stone.
You can do it all, sample one or two of the activities, or simply do nothing but curl up with a book and doze off in one of the conveniently situated hammocks or Adirondacks at the Ranch. As you breathe in the fresh air and feast your eyes on the glorious scenery, you‘ll realize just how much you needed to disconnect and disengage from that rat race you call life. Your senses will come alive in this natural, unspoiled piece of paradise and you’ll understand why so many folks make Stehekin their annual pilgrimage.

Cliff Courtney, who was born and raised in Stehekin, and owns the 20-acre Ranch together with his wife Kerry, notes that close to sixty percent of their guests are repeat customers. They continue to come because they value the Stehekin experience. He says, “People have to really want to come here because it takes work to get here. Once they do, they realize what a special place it is and how untouched it is from outside influences.” He adds, “Many of our clients have travelled the world and they all agree that Stehekin is second to none. We like to say the Ranch is close to home, close to heaven.”

The frequent visitors I spoke with all emphasized the sense of family that exists at the Ranch and the way the staff makes them feel so completely at home. Intimacy is retained because there are only a few dozen people staying on the property at one time. Everyone’s on a first name basis and employees freely circulate among the guests, getting to know their preferences in order to provide personalized service.

It’s important to note that the Ranch is not your typical dude ranch establishment. Don’t expect nightly sing-a-longs, country line dancing or flashy horse show events. This is a laid back, casual place where people make their own entertainment. For most, evenings are spent reading, chatting near the fire, playing cards or board games in the upstairs game room, or taking a stroll to visit the horses. You’ll fall asleep to the sounds of the river and the great outdoors, and the last thing you’ll remember contemplating before your head hits the pillow is, “I wonder what kinds of pie they’ll have tomorrow?”


If you go:

For general visitor information about Stehekin:

Stehekin Valley Ranch: or 1-800-536-0745

Lady of the Lake:

Any reason is a good reason to raft the Grand Canyon

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Stunning scenery and towering temples of sandstone provide a mesmerizing backdrop as you travel the winding waterways through the Canyon. Courtesy of Arizona River Runners
The expression, “That was awesome!” does not begin to describe an experience that truly defies description. And yet, it was the one our group of adventurers found ourselves using over and over again as an expression for our epic journey. To an outsider, it might have sounded trite, but to us, those three words held a world of meaning and seemed to sum up the range of emotions we all felt during a magical and memorable seven-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon with Arizona River Runners.

There were 25 of us who came together to do this trip of a lifetime. Our group was comprised of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, good friends, husbands and wives, solo travelers and colleagues. And though we hailed from different places and backgrounds, we all had one thing in common – a shared desire to do the mother of all raft trips through one of the most heralded natural wonders in the world. Each of us, however, had our own personal motivations for wanting to embark on this amazing experience. And so, you might ask, what drives people to explore the Grand Canyon from the seat of a raft?

They do it for the thrills and chills of experiencing impressive Class V rapids like Hermit, Granite, Crystal and the grand finale – the longest stretch of navigable whitewater in the country – Lava Falls. It’s a pure adrenaline rush to run the rapid train of the mighty Colorado River, no matter whether you’re in an oared or motorized raft. And when the water is really flowing (during my trip, it measured 23,000 – 25,000 cfs or cubic feet per second compared to a normal flow of 7 – 15,000 cfs), it’s one hellacious ride.

You can hear the roar of the thunderous rapids way before you reach them, which stokes the level of excitement and anticipation. And then you see the furious churning motion ahead and your heart begins to race. You assume the required position, batten down the hatches and then hold on tight for an extreme version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. My group adopted its own approval rating of the rapids by using what we called, a “yeee ha!” scale. The louder and longer we yelled these words, the crazier the rapid. For us, Hermit was the clear winner, as it not only had the gnarliest waves, which completely drenched us and our boats, but it seemed to go on forever. We all looked like drowned rats when it was over. But, we were giddy and laughing like a bunch of kids, as we savored the natural high of the experience.

It’s all about the thrills and the chills when you ride the Colorado River’s rapid train through the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of Arizona River Runners
The Colorado River is mostly made up of snowmelt from the Rockies and rarely reaches temps above 50˚ F. This translates to water that can only be described as liquid ice. You’re guaranteed to gasp with shock when it hits you, no matter how hot it is outside. One of our group’s members likened the sensation of riding the rapids to being on a rollercoaster while getting shot at with a fire hose. The water packs a walloping punch and it knows no boundaries. You will come to respect its power and understand that it is a life force with a heartbeat and mind of its own.

They do it because the trip has been on their bucket list for many years. Maybe they’ve heard about the experience from a friend, or read stories or seen a program on T.V. about it. Or perhaps they’ve visited the Grand Canyon before and have been

fortunate to spy a glimpse of a sliver of the Colorado River from a perch at the top of the South Rim. The tales, the pictures and the descriptions fuel their fervor to explore the Canyon’s depths and get an up-close and personal view of its splendors. They think about it, dream about it and one day, they translate their goal into reality. And when at long last they accomplish their objective, they discover that the adventure exceeds their expectations in every possible way. They go on to be ambassadors for the experience, spreading the word far and wide and vowing to make a return trip.

They do it to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the Canyon’s geology and history. On a raft trip, your knowledgeable guides will explain about the lives of the ancestral Native Americans who made the Grand Canyon their home. For a thousand years, these “ancient ones” roamed the area, carving small plots of farmland from rocky niches, hunting game on the rims above and building basic shelters under the ledges to protect them from the harsh elements. Remains of their dwellings are still visible and serve as reminders of the struggles these pre-historic people endured.

You’ll also learn facts about the first explorers; most prominent being John Wesley Powell, who led the initial exploration into this uncharted territory back in 1869. These adventurers were brave and determined individuals; many who lost their lives on the river as a result of inferior equipment, insufficient food and supplies, and inexperience. It seems only appropriate that those fearless men and women who met their demise during these early journeys receive recognition. Thus, a number of the rapids on the river are named in memory of some of these pioneers. All told, the tales the guides regale help bring the Canyon alive with “voices” from the past. They also give newfound appreciation to our ability today to make the same trip in safety and comfort.

As for the geological aspects, rock hounds will be particularly enthralled with the extensive information given about the Canyon’s layers and spectacular travertine formations. The rocks, some of which date back as much as two billion years, reveal a record of the earth’s past and are testimony to the combined effects of uplift, erosion and time. Even those who don’t know much about geology will find the details fascinating, as well as helpful in interpreting the ever-changing, vivid landscape.

They do it for the challenge and the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone. For some people, it could be the first time they’ve gone rafting or encountered whitewater. For others, it might be the camping experience. And then there are those who aren’t seasoned hikers. It’s important to note that the hikes offered are always optional and usually include several choices based on level of difficulty. Some are fairly mellow, but others are of the “kick-butt” variety, where you’ll be scrambling among rocks, scaling ledges, fording streams and climbing atop boulders. The guides are always there to help, as are your fellow group members. Many a time did I grab for a willing hand or arm as I walked on narrow, exposed ledges that would have normally caused me to freeze due to my fear of heights. The goal is for everyone who wants to do the hikes to participate and you will be highly motivated to join in because it’s a chance to explore the hidden gems of the Canyon that can only be reached on foot.

Hikes into side canyons reveal enchanting
hanging gardens and cascading waterfalls.
Photos by Deborah Stone
You’ll follow pathways dotted with wildflowers and blooming cacti and go through hallways of rock walls to small waterfalls, desert pools and unique rock formations. There’s Elves Chasm, an enchanting hanging garden with its dripping moss and ferns, and Stone Creek, with its clear cascading waterfall. Or magical Blacktail, a slot canyon with walls only 3 to 5 feet apart, that served as a natural amphitheater for an informal musical interlude by our talented guides. Other popular hikes include Upper Deer Creek with its ledges and carved narrows of Tapeats Sandstone, Nankoweap Ruins, where you can see the remains of Anasazi granaries, and Havasu Creek, an oasis of mineral-laden, turquoise blue water. The rewards of hiking in the Grand Canyon are many, as around each corner is a treasure that makes the effort worthwhile, not to mention the feeling of accomplishment that results from the endeavor.

They do it to disconnect and get in touch with nature on a more personal level. There are no cell phones, no computers or other technological devices to distract you when you’re rafting the Grand Canyon. You are off the grid and out of communication with the rest of the world. It’s an opportunity to leave the hectic grind behind and take a respite from the often overwhelming pressures of daily life and information overload. It may take a few days to get into the river routine, but once you adjust to it, that nagging feeling to check your e-mail disappears. You’re on Canyon time now, rising with the sun and sleeping under the star-studded sky. Decisions are few and far between, as your diligent crew tends to all the details, from rustling up the grub to finding the ideal campsite at the end of the day.

Your guides are more than just experienced boatmen and women who can read the mercurial water and navigate boats through the Canyon. On my trip, girl power reigned supreme. There were three über-fit females - veterans of the river - and one male. This hardworking team helped bring the group together, while juggling the roles of cooks, who created sumptuous and hearty meals; entertainers, who sang, played musical instruments and did stand-up comedy; and educators, who took pride in interpreting the natural surroundings. They clearly had a passion for their work, as well as for this special place, and they were committed to ensuring their clients had the most memorable and safest journey while under their care.

Your job is simply to make the most of this experience. Relax, tune in to your surroundings and let your senses come alive in this wilderness paradise. Prepare to be moved and mesmerized by one of Mother Nature’s magnificent creations.

Venture off the river to picturesque Upper Deer Creek with
its ledges and carved narrows of Tapeats Sandstone.
Photo by Deborah Stone.
They do it to meet kindred souls and share in the camaraderie that such an experience creates. Strangers at first, your fellow rafters will feel like friends and family in no time. You’ll find that your group bonds quickly and connections are easily made within the socially conducive environment. Conversations flow while in the rafts, on the trails or at the campsites. Mealtimes are communal gatherings, which serve as ideal opportunities to talk about the day’s activities. And later, there might be music, more stories and musings about tomorrow’s stretch of the river. You’ll learn that the majority of people who participate in these types of trips are fun-loving, adventuresome spirits with a deep respect for the great outdoors. They’re friendly, open and upbeat individuals, who understand the importance of and necessity for cooperative effort. Most importantly, they have a sense of humor, which always comes in handy in such situations. All groups have their class clowns. Ours were Kirk and Karl, who we could always count on for our daily dose of over-the-top levity.

And…drumroll…they do it for the view from the loo! Clearly, this is not a reason the majority of folks are prompted to give at the onset of one of these trips. However, it becomes readily apparent after a few days on the river that this is definitely one of those bonus perks which deserves mention. On your trip, you will quickly learn about the toilet facilities. They are basically nonexistent when you’re away from a campsite area, however, when in camp, the guides will set up a portable toilet in a secluded area to allow privacy. The location is often strategically chosen to provide a view of such eye-pleasing sights as the ever-flowing river, a wall of intricately veined and marbleized rock or a set of craggy cliffs and ledges that provide the perfect backdrop for a glowing sunset. You’ll wax poetic as you sit upon the throne admiring the setting. A colorful lizard or two might even join you if you’re lucky. But don’t stay too long…others are waiting!

Any reason is a good reason to take a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. It’s a place that must be experienced to be truly appreciated. Pictures don’t do its breathtaking vistas justice, books can’t really describe its natural wonders and movies aren’t fully able to capture the sights and sounds of this unique environment the way your senses can. When you travel its winding waterways and hike among the towering walls, you will come to know the Canyon’s heart and soul. And I think you, too, will say of your experience, “That was awesome!”

If you go: There are many different rafting companies that run all-inclusive trips through the Grand Canyon. I opted to go with Arizona River Runners, one of the original outfitters, which has been in business since 1970. It has an excellent reputation in the industry due to its stellar safety record, experienced guides and high customer satisfaction ratings.

The company offers a range of options from a three-day, taste-of-the-canyon motorized excursion up to a full two-week oar powered adventure spanning 225 miles. The most popular packages are the 6 day/5 night or 7 day/6 night trips, where you’ll float 187 miles through the heart of the Canyon. 2011 rates start at $1,175 per person for the 3-day escape and top out at $3,295 for the 13-day ultimate Grand Canyon experience. Early season and group discount rates are available.

For more information: visit or call 1-800-477-7238.


Adventures of a single parent - We’re going to Idaho! ‘Ida who?’

  • Written by Julie Boselly

2010_BC_930After my daughter said "Ida who?" for the bazillionth time, I let my kids (ages 9 and 5) in on all the fabulous details about our first true vacation. I say true vacation because we’ve traveled a lot but it has been mostly to Oregon and Washington, and only to visit family in a car. We’re going all out now – and taking an airplane!

After wrapping my head around the idea of taking the kids all by myself on a bunch of first experiences, we were booked to go and the excitement built. If you’ve never been to Idaho, you’re missing out. There are many adventures awaiting you.

We flew from SeaTac to Spokane via Alaska Airlines. I had some miles available and called to speak to an agent. Did you know there are still people who answer the phone and help you! The agent was fabulous and worked out three tickets for about $140 total. That was bonus number one. I then tried to find a reasonable car rental – that was not easy until a friend recommended I found a 5 day car rental for $88. That was bonus number two.

Once on the plane, it was a barrage of questions: "Why are we shaking?" "Why are the lights off?" "What’s that smell?" "Why did they close our cabinet when there is nothing in it?" "Are we over the Cascades?" Mom to Jack: "What are the names of all the mountains?" Jack: "I don’t know what you are talking about." Katie over farmland: "Why is everything polka dots?"

After landing and a 90 minute drive to Sandpoint, Idaho, we arrived at our first destination – Dover Bay Bungalows. Dover Bay is a resort community next to Sandpoint. It is a well thought-out combination of homes, rental cabins and condos on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. There are spectacular views, long walking trails, a dog park, boat rentals, pool, fitness facility, store, café and a marina where you can book a seaplane adventure. The community also has a donated fire station and an old barn for weddings. They also host free concerts in July on the lawn near the bungalows.

We stayed in Cabin #1 – Seas the Moment. The 2- bedroom 1-bath cabin was very charming. The "family lake cabin" had everything we needed. A kitchen, bunk beds for the kids, large deck with a grassy front lawn next to the lake. Even though I said no TV on this trip, we did chill on the couch a couple times and watch their nice flat screen. That was only after watching the sun and the moon set and pointing out various stars. Remember to pack swim suits, beach towels and sunscreen.

2010_BC_951Day two we headed into downtown Sandpoint. The local farmers market was incredible – so many vendors, music and great energy in the heart of the town. In downtown Sandpoint, you will also find City Beach – an amazing sandy beach with ample parking and lifeguards. Lake Pend Oreille cruises depart from City Beach. The Shawnodese is a charter vessel which, with the help of Captain Ron, took us all around the north end of the lake and First Mate Linda gave us an amazing history lesson about Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint. They were incredibly kind to my kids and both kids had a chance to be "Captain of the Day" taking us back to the dock. Jack was hilarious when Linda said we have our own "Captain Jack" – he let out a lovely "Aye."

Later that night we attended an outdoor concert at Memorial Field. The Festival at Sandpoint is not to be missed. We had tickets to see Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I definitely would come up with a new plan to take kids – mine wasn’t good. There are in/out privileges so take them to the playground when they get bored. We made it until dark, then Jack pulled out a loose tooth, bled everywhere and the kids told me they were done, we left the concert early. A second adult would have been nice that evening! Also note: bring cash, arrive early – I mean EARLY - for good seats.

Day three took us to Silverwood Theme Park. It was about a 30 minute drive in the morning. Here’s another get there early destination. Once the gates open, people run to get prime water park locations. We played in the water all day and did the rides at night. Silverwood is so much fun. The family-owned theme park is open July through Labor Day weekend and has added events , such as "Scarywood" in October.

I found out exactly how crazy my daughter is on this trip. Five years old and she wanted to go on every single ride – thankfully she was too short for most things upside down or "high intensity." Somehow she managed to be just over the 42" minimum for Tremors – it’s a wooden roller coaster which goes 60 mph and has a longest drop of 103 feet. Let’s just say the photo they took of us has mom screaming and kids laughing. Not good! Jack originally did not want to go and his sister, with attitude, said, "You can just sit by yourself at the bottom and wait then. We’re going." My favorite and I think the favorite of the kids was Avalanche Mountain in the water park. Prepare to wait in line for it – but it is worth the wait!

Plan for: paying to park, no outside food/drinks, renting lockers, change of clothes (no swim suits in theme park), look for discount tickets ahead of time. Also, dinner at Lindy’s inside the theme park was fabulous with great food and great service. Campgrounds are across the street and other accommodations are nearby.

2010_BC_968We left Silverwood and I drove the very sleepy Katie and thankfully awake Jack to Schweitzer Mountain. It was an hour drive with 30 minutes of it very dark and winding roads. I wasn’t really sure what the accommodations were going to be so I had to battle Jack’s head and convince him we wouldn’t be sleeping in tents with bears. Once we arrived at the top of the mountain and saw the beautiful Selkirk Lodge, I heard, "OK, this is cool!" It’s a European-style hotel with small sink, microwave and refrigerator in some rooms and upgrades including jetted hot tub in others.

We had a wonderful dinner at Chimney Rock Grill in the lodge. My huckleberry-tini was grand and the homemade pretzels were addictive. I ordered the pork chop – I had to take a photo. It was a perfect pork chop. The wait staff was fun –helping me make the kids laugh. I really appreciated that on our last night out.

Summer activities on the mountain include: mountain biking, hiking, huckleberry picking, horseback riding, rock climbing, bungee trampoline, lift rides, spa, tennis, giant checkers and chess, dining and shopping. Oh and don’t forget the swimming pool and summer camps for kids! The drive back to Spokane airport from Schweitzer Mountain was about two hours. There really are four seasons of unlimited experiences available surrounding Sandpoint, Idaho. I look forward to planning a winter trip and more summer ones to this beautiful destination.

Cruise business is ‘labor of love’

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Courtesy photo
Running a seasonal operation may sound like a walk in the park to those unfamiliar with the nature of such businesses.

Individuals in the know, however, can tell you that the term "seasonal" is often misleading.

Such operations, though they may be up and running for only five months, mandate a full time commitment year round.

"It’s definitely deceiving," says Meg Swimelar. "You don’t just stop working the rest of the time. If you did, you’d lose all your business."

The Bothell woman speaks from experience. She and her husband Wes and two of his friends own and operate Sikumi Custom Alaska Cruises.

Their boat, the M.V. Sikumi ("Sikumi" is an Inuit word meaning "among the ice.") is a 67-foot commercial trawler equipped with all the creature comforts one needs to enjoy a weeklong cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage.

This is the sixth season in the business for the couple and their partners.

"My husband is a commercial fisherman, specializing in king crab," says Swimelar. "He and his friends, who are also fishermen, thought it would be fun to get into the hospitality business. I got hooked along with them in the process."

She adds, "We bought the boat and business from a couple in Alaska and have built it up over the years. I do all the bookings, promotions, hiring and day-to-day office detail work. Wes maintains the boat, making the repairs during the off-season and getting it all ready for the summer."

Courtesy photo.
Swimelar’s son and daughter have also been involved in what has turned out to be a family business.

Her son has helped paint the boat and her daughter worked on it last summer, cleaning cabins.

"Everyone pitches in to help, but we do have other crew members, including an adventure and natural history guide, and of course, a skipper."

The M.V. Sikumi can accommodate up to 12 passengers, who are accompanied by a crew of five.

Cruises depart from Petersburg, Alaska, from May through September and explore the picturesque waters and pristine wilderness of the famed Inside Passage.

A typical journey will include up close views of some of Alaska’s most impressive glaciers, along with opportunities to kayak, fish, hike, spot whales and view wildlife, go beachcombing and take in the natural wonders of this scenic area from both land and sea perspectives.

"We cater to our passengers’ needs and interests," explains Swimelar. "Because we’re small, we can offer lots of flexibility and go places the bigger ships can’t. Our itineraries revolve around our clients. Aside from safety, our number one goal is to provide each of our passengers with a unique and incredible Alaskan cruise adventure."

Swimelar emphasizes that although the boat isn’t on the scale of the large cruise ships that ply the Alaskan waters each summer, it’s very comfortable and sea worthy. Each of the four staterooms has its own toilet, sink, shower, oversize full bed and fold-down twin bunk.

There are several lounges and a spacious deck where passengers can congregate, as well as a dining area, where sumptuous meals are served.

"Our chef prepares only the best and freshest of the Northwest, often using what’s caught each day right off the boat, like shrimp, crab and halibut," explains Swimelar.

"The passengers love when they catch something in the morning and get to eat it later that evening." With an almost two-to-one ratio between passengers and crew, personal attention is guaranteed.

And the casual, intimate atmosphere of the boat ensures that everyone on board becomes one big happy family.

"Our passengers tell us that they feel more like members of a family and not like clients," notes Swimelar. "They feel involved in everything." She adds, "And they leave with so many special memories. It’s all about creating that once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The local woman, who had previous been a stay-at-home mom, has developed a passion for the business.

She enjoys getting to know the clients ahead of time and to putting together a trip tailored to their interests. And when they return from their cruise, she is eager to get their feedback.

"I love hearing their stories and knowing that they had a great time," acknowledges Swimelar. "Their complete satisfaction is my reward."

The work, however, is not glamorous and to be successful in the industry mandates commitment, long hours and patience.

"It’s a labor of love," she adds. "And you have to be a people person. That’s probably most important. If you don’t have a sincere interest in people and a desire to understand their needs, then this type of job is probably not for you."

The Swimelars and their partners plan to continue growing the business and are looking into possibly using their boat to do off-season custom trips in the Puget Sound area.

For more information about Sikumi Custom Alaskan Cruises: (425) 806-2083 or

A stay at Miraval is the ultimate gift to yourself

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Miraval entrance. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Heights are just not my thing. But, there I was dangling in a safety harness 40-feet off the ground. The group below, who had just moments ago hoisted me up to this point by pulling on a rope in tug-of-war style, yelled encouraging comments to me. The leader told me to breathe deeply, enjoy the beautiful scenery and set a personal intention before letting go of the rope clenched in my right hand. To be honest, my intention was to get down from this scary place as soon as possible because I knew if I spent any amount of time appreciating the desert landscape or tried to engage in some intense soul searching, I’d lose my nerve. I had signed up for this activity, aptly named "A Swing and a Prayer," because I wanted to put myself in a situation that would get me outside of my comfort zone. And as heights present a continuous challenge to me, the experience seemed tailor-made to my needs. When I finally let go, I screamed as my stomach dropped in rollercoaster fashion. It felt like the whole world was falling beneath me. I decided it was time for the prayer part of this activity. And then I began to swing in pendulum style from one pole to another. My legs were shaking and I had a white knuckle grasp on the rope. Then the movement changed and sent me soaring in a wide circular formation. I forgot to mention that spinning is not my thing either! Although I wanted to stop, I was urged to take a moment and relax into the movement, while letting go of first one hand on the rope, then the other. And I reluctantly did, surprising myself by awkwardly leaning into something that resembled a backbend.

At Miraval and activities like “Swing and a Prayer” help participants learn not to let their fears define them. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As I contemplated the world from this pose, I was suddenly reminded of my childhood and the sense of pure joy and freedom that came from such simple pleasures like playing on the swings. Back on terra firma, with the group congratulating me on my accomplishment, I felt elated and proud. Yes, it was frightening and no, I’m not ready to audition for Cirque du Soleil, but it was also liberating to completely let go and exhilarate in the moment. Celebrating life and one’s limitless potential is what it’s all about at Miraval, a well-known destination spa near Tucson, Arizona. This special retreat, nestled on 400 acres of idyllic land within the picturesque Santa Catalina Mountains, prides itself on its pioneering self-discovery and growth activities, not to mention its luxurious accommodations, deliciously healthy cuisine and state-of-the-art fitness and spa facilities. It’s a place to be inspired, rejuvenated, appreciated and motivated to focus on your emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

There are many reasons why people come to Miraval. For some, it’s the need to get out of the rat race for some good old R&R, along with a hefty dose of pampering. Others view it as a chance to kick start a program of healthy habits.

Miraval_077And then there are those who are eager to try new activities and challenge themselves in different ways. There are also individuals who come in search of help to deal with relationship or grief and loss issues. Though each has his/her own purpose, they all share a commonality among them – the desire to do something good for themselves. A stay at Miraval is the ultimate gift to yourself. And you can spend it anyway you wish. One of the most popular spots is the spa, where an extensive menu of services is delivered by practitioners with magic hands in serene indoor and outdoor sanctuaries. There’s everything from hot stone massage and anti-aging facials to mud wraps, prickly pear sugar scrubs and even acupuncture. One of my favorite treatments is Aqua Zen, a form of massage within a warm water pool. The water invites complete relaxation and allows the body to be manipulated and stretched with greater freedom than traditional massage. The results are wonderful. Stress and strain melt away and you are left feeling a loosened and lighter being. Some unique bodywork experiences involve healing ceremonies and the use of such practices as sound therapy to renew energy and balance. The newest of these is Sensorium, which brings together vibrational medicine, music, aromatherapy and human touch to stimulate and engage the full spectrum of your senses.

Two practitioners work in harmony to create this sensory rich environment, which allows you to sink into a deep state of complete relaxation. It’s bliss to the zillionth degree. When you’re ready to leave spa heaven, you can opt to continue the bliss with a nap poolside or on the deck of your private casita. Or maybe you’d like to get your heart pumping a bit. If so, check out the Body Mind Center, where you’ll find classes in spinning, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, dance, water aerobics and other body conditioning activities. It’s fun to try something new. I dropped in on a cardio drumming class and was surprised at the high-energy workout it gave me, not to mention the pure joy I got from beating on the drums within a supportive and uplifting group setting. For the adventurous adrenaline junkies, there’s rock climbing, mountain biking, a challenge course and even a zipline experience. When you wish to quiet your mind, there are guided meditation sessions offered at various times of the day. One morning I started out with I Chi Flow, a class that incorporated Tai Chi movements in the water.

The gentle flow of the movements combined with the warmth of the early morning sunlight and the sound of the birds chirping brought serenity to my soul and gave me positive energy to begin my day. Another morning I opted to do a group hike in the surrounding desert landscape. Wild flowers and jackrabbits poked their heads up among the interesting shaped cacti. And even a colorful Gila monster showed up in this natural splendor only to slither quickly into the brush. Other self-discovery and growth activities come in the form of workshops taught by hand-picked professionals and distinguished experts on such topics as stress reduction, life balance, guided imagery, mindful eating, communication, grief and loss and intuitive living. And then there’s the Equine Experience, a Miraval Signature activity aimed at gaining greater self-awareness through sessions that involve working with specially selected horses.

Wyatt Webb, founder and director of the program, is a wise old cowboy with much to say about the behavioral insight that can be gained from interacting with a horse. He believes that a person can begin to notice personal patterns of learned behavior that may be holding them back from the life they want to live.

"If it’s not working, then you need to make changes," he says. "First you have to acknowledge that it’s not working. And then you have to decide to do something about it. Determination of intent is important, but it means nothing unless you follow through." I had chosen to take part in the Equine Experience because of the discomfort I feel around horses.

Once again, I wanted to push those boundaries and deal with my fears. The first challenge was to scrape mud and manure from a horse’s hoof with a tool resembling a large crochet hook. My horse and I reached an immediate standoff on the first try. Though I pinched his lower right back leg repeatedly, as instructed, he ignored me. Back off, Webb said, then stride toward him confidently with determination to follow through on the action. On the third try, I was successful. Self-doubt, combined with my fears of horses and of failure, had gotten in the way. Webb reminded the group that the exercise is less about cleaning the horse’s hoof than "about cleaning or clearing out your head."

A session in the ring followed. Using body, breath and movement, each participant had to get a horse to walk, trot, change directions and then come to a complete stop. You weren’t allowed to talk or touch the horse in the process. To be successful in this endeavor, you can’t be a tightly wound vessel or allow your energy to overpower you because you will convey this to the horse and it will most likely react adversely. "Horses only pick up two things," says Webb. "Is it safe or unsafe? Clear or unclear?" Remembering to breathe deeply, the Miraval "mantra," I calmed my nerves and miraculously was able to get the horse to follow my directions. It was definitely a "horse whisperer" moment and one for the memory books. All this activity, fresh air and introspection do wonders to stimulate the appetite. But, if you think you’ll be restricted to a Spartan diet simply because you’re at a spa, think again. Miraval’s award-winning cuisine is created with the belief that healthy ingredients can also mean exquisite flavor. Guests are encouraged to explore mindful eating and discover tasty, satisfying dishes that are moderately low in calories and fat.

Deprivation is not practiced here. There’s a full bar and a wine list is offered with the dinner menu. It notes that wine can be good for lowering bad cholesterol. Mealtime is a wonderful opportunity to connect and share experiences with others. Don’t worry if you come solo. You’ll be in good company, as there are others who have chosen to make this journey on their own.



If you go:

Miraval offers a variety of packages that can be personalized to individual needs. Its rates are all-inclusive (accommodations, airport transfers, all meals, participation in an array of group scheduled programs and activities and a $130 resort credit per person per night to apply to spa services, private consultations, dinner with the chef or playing golf). The resort also features in-depth explorations and special events for those interested in more intentioned stays with defined pathways and outcomes.

For more information: 800-232-3969 or